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Formerly known as

Jo Glanville

When the Royal Court published an apology at the weekend for giving a Jewish name to an unscrupulous billionaire in a play, it was greeted with some derision. The theatre said the ‘mistake’ was a result of ‘unconscious bias’. But how could the name Hershel Fink not be instantly identifiable as Jewish? (There’s a Jewish joke that begins: ‘My name’s Fink, whaddya think?’) And why did it not occur to anyone that associating Jews with power, money and unprincipled behaviour is one of the oldest antisemitic clichés in the book?

The Royal Court’s announcement that the playwright, Al Smith, is changing the character’s name to Henry Finn reminds me of another Jewish joke. A man goes to his lawyer to change his name to Brown. ‘You changed your name last year from Cohen to Smith,’ the lawyer says. ‘Why do you want to change it again?’ The man replies: ‘So I can tell people my previous name was Smith.’

Unconscious bias is a plausible explanation, though. It’s unconscious because the association of Jews with power and money is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it isn’t even questioned. The character, according to the Royal Court website, is a ‘Silicon Valley billionaire, who … believes he can save the world building affordable electric cars, and make millions of dollars in the process.’ Perhaps Smith was looking for a name that would remind theatregoers of ‘Elon Musk’, and ‘Hershel Fink’ for some reason seemed to fit the bill. He is a symbol of capitalist exploitation, even when trying to do good – one of the most noxious antisemitic stereotypes.

The theatre describes the play, Rare Earth Mettle, as a ‘brutally comic exploration of risk, delusion and power’. Everyone involved in the production somehow seemed to have forgotten that Jews have long been identified with exploitation: to choose a Jewish name for a non-Jewish baddie reaffirms that identification. However much we may decry antisemitism, the connection between Jews and immoral behaviour runs so deep in cultural memory that we may not always be aware of the resonance.

If the Royal Court are sincere in wanting to understand where they went wrong, they will have to go back a long way. The association of Jews with harm is as old as Christianity. Their characterisation as irredeemably materialist and carnal has been replayed in multiple versions over the centuries. In Anti-Judaism (2013), the historian David Nirenberg showed how this way of thinking about Jews was transmitted into secular thought, through the writings of Voltaire, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and Marx. Judaism, Nirenberg argues, is in part a ‘set of ideas and attributes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticise their world’.

As the Royal Court row was going on, a friend sent me an extract from an article in the Financial Times: ‘the debate around free speech on university campuses concerns all sorts of issues, from allegations of anti-Semitism to homophobia and racism’. The implication, she felt, was that racism and homophobia were proven, whereas antisemitism on campus was no more than an allegation. And why, she wanted to know, was antisemitism listed separately from racism, as if it were distinct? She has a point.

In a joke my father tells, a Jewish man is sharing a sleeper compartment from Glasgow to London with a stranger. He’s forgotten to bring any soap. Can he borrow the other passenger’s? ‘Fine,’ says the young man. Next he asks if he can borrow his comb. ‘Be my guest,’ the young man says. Finally, he realises he’s forgotten his toothbrush. Could he use that as well? This time the young man says no and hopes he won’t be offended – it’s a matter of personal hygiene. When the Jewish traveller arrives in London, his wife is there to greet him on the platform. ‘How was the journey?’ she asks. ‘Fine,’ says her husband. ‘But boy, did I meet an antisemite.’

Jews can laugh at themselves for being oversensitive, but when insensitivity towards Jews and antisemitism continues at a time of apparently heightened awareness around racism, they have reason to be twitchy; and editors and theatres need to pay more attention to one of the oldest prejudices around.


Comments


  • 13 November 2021 at 4:30pm
    Scott Herrick says:
    I don't doubt or disagree with Glanville's comments, but... growing up in the mid-west US the only Fink I ever met personally (not counting a few anti-union scoundrels) was a Methodist minister, and a very quick Googe search reveals several other main-stream Christian clergy of that name.

    • 15 November 2021 at 8:00am
      Charles Evans says: @ Scott Herrick
      That may well be true, but the Royal Court Theatre isn't in the US mid-west, it's in the UK. And most of the people involved were British. In any case, ignorance is no excuse.

    • 16 November 2021 at 9:00am
      Harry Stopes says: @ Scott Herrick
      Have you met many Methodist ministers called Hershel? Leaving aside the meaning (intended or unintended) of giving the character an identifiably Jewish name, it's to me astonishing that anyone can suggest Hershel Fink isn't such a name.

    • 16 November 2021 at 7:05pm
      Bob K says: @ Charles Evans
      Hmm. But presumably the theatre goers know that the play is set in the States and would expect characters to have American names. Personally, the only Herschel I know about is the astronomer and Fink is not a name I am familiar with.

      You say "ignorance is no excuse", but ignorance of what exactly? Are we really all supposed to know the full gamut of likely names for every ethnic group in the world?

      Finally, is the implication that in fiction, theatre and film, any character with "an identifiably Jewish name" must always be shown in a positive light?

    • 16 November 2021 at 7:21pm
      John P brennan says: @ Scott Herrick
      Those "Googe" searches! Are you sure it wasn't a "Gooch" search?

  • 14 November 2021 at 5:27pm
    bentoth says:
    The only certainty, when antisemitism is discussed in terms of language, is that something else is happening too. This was clearly the case in the recent efforts to hound Jeremy Corbyn out of British politics. It's less clear in the case of the Royal Court; maybe a preemptive move by the Theatre's authorities in view of the troubled history of its attempt to stage Perdition.

    One thing does seems reasonably clear however. In a week when it was suggested that the word Nakba is antisemitic, and a peaceful protest against a racist politician was described as Kristallnacht II, one of the effects of focussing on language is - consciously or unconsciously - to deflect attention, and make a fair settlement in Palestine-Israel, which is in everyone's interest, more difficult.

  • 16 November 2021 at 12:42pm
    joel says:
    Larry Fink is CEO of BlackRock, which owns large parts of the stocks of nearly all big companies and lends money to and advises the US central bank. He has pushed relentlessly for Social Security be privatized, while mocking the idea that people should retire at 65. He is arguably a more impactful figure in the world than any character made up by a playwright.

    • 16 November 2021 at 7:34pm
      John P brennan says: @ joel
      Larry Fink is a good Democrat, and Black Rock is not the only financial group with "ties" to the Federal Reserve. Plus, its recently enlarged role came into neing in Spring 2020, during the Trump administration. Interestingly, the murmurings about its excess power seem to have been started by Bloomberg News, an offshoot of one of BlackRock's competitors.

    • 16 November 2021 at 8:03pm
      joel says: @ John P brennan
      He would regard you as less than a cockroach.

  • 16 November 2021 at 3:27pm
    stacemeister says:
    Whether it it right or it is wrong, it is censorship. Public opinion has forced a playwright to change an element of his work, in very short order. It seems fairly unprecedented and I would have thought the writer who used to run the Index on Censorship and PEN would have thoughts on the balancing of the right to offend (if this was indeed the writer's intention which I very much doubt) with the right not to be offended.

    • 16 November 2021 at 5:22pm
      ianbrowne says: @ stacemeister
      Whilst there may be a right to freedom of expression, I very much doubt if there is such a thing as a right not to be offended. Given the ease with which some people take offence, a right not to be offended would effectively surpress any right to freedom of expression.

    • 16 November 2021 at 5:22pm
      John P brennan says: @ stacemeister
      It is NOT censorship, in any meaningful (or legal) sense!

    • 17 November 2021 at 4:26pm
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      If you think that there is no right not to be offended, does that mean you think people should be allowed to be naked and have sex in public? And what about people using racist and LGBTQ+-phobic language in the hearing of those offended by it?

      The first wouldn’t offend me and the second would, but I support the ban of both because I think people have the right not to be offended by those things.

    • 18 November 2021 at 2:46pm
      ianbrowne says: @ Joe Morison
      There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, it is unclear what ‘offensive’ means. It seems to me that its use nowadays covers everything from I find something dislikeable, distasteful annoying, irritating all the way to it undermines my sense of self worth and attacks values that are fundamental to my sense of life’s purpose. It also seems to me that sometimes the word ‘offensive’ is used as a loose synonym for threat or attempt at intimidation. I find the lyrics in some rap songs quite offensive, by which I mean I find them annoying and distasteful, but I wouldn’t want to ban them. The case of the Danish cartoons is quite another matter as it seems to me to be a gratuitous attack on the fundamental beliefs of a group of people who find meaning and purpose in those beliefs. There was an intelligent discussion of this in Jeremy Harding’s article ‘Charlie’s War’:
      https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n03/jeremy-harding/charlie-s-war
      To join together under the concept “causing offence” the ideas of disliking something or finding it distasteful with the idea of attacking or undermining a person’s identity and sense of self worth is not helpful. Unless some effort is made to specify exactly what sort of offense is supposed to be have been caused and whether the reaction of distaste or whatever is the appropriate response, nothing of any use has been said. A lot of heat is generated by the idea that there is a right not to be offended, but very little light.
      The second problem is with the idea of there being ‘a right’ not to be offended. The old idea of an imperfect obligation seems to me to fit the milder cases – an imperfect obligation being, in this case, an obligation not to do something, which is not attached to any corresponding right. For example, one might feel that a rap artist has an obligation not to use lyrics glorifying violence and misogyny, without thinking that anyone has a right to stop him singing songs of that kind.
      Talk of a right not to be offended seems to me to be largely misplaced. It ascribes as a right something that most of us would not recognize as any kind of right at all. In the case discussed, the playwright Al Smith seems to have recognized that he had an obligation to change the name of the character, once its resonances were brought to his attention. But it strikes me that no-one had a right to make him change the name – an example of an imperfect obligation.
      There seems to me to be a tendency to view all sorts of imperfect obligations as offering opportunities to enforce all kinds of extraordinary ‘rights’, and a lot of the recent concern over trans ‘rights’ seems to be of this kind.

    • 20 November 2021 at 7:42am
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      To say that someone has the right to something is to say neither more nor less than that it is wrong to deprive them of it. Such wrongs are never absolute, they always have to be weighed against each other. When we judge the net rate of wrongness to be severe enough, we intervene to stop it. There is no need for all this fancy categorization.

  • 16 November 2021 at 6:10pm
    John P brennan says:
    I met a few people surnamed Fink" in my first 50 years, but it was only when the Coen Brothers movie "Barton Fink" came to my attention, about a decade after its 1991 release, that I learned the name was stereotypically Jewish. (Though not myself Jewish, I grew up with and otherwise associated with a substantial number of Jewish people, NONE of whom were surnamed "Fink.") To the younger me, "fink" was basically another derogatory term for an anti-union snitch or scab, or any kind of informer who might "fink you out" to your parents or other authorities. It could easily be adapted--and was--or use as a general term of disapprobation.
    Having said that, one wonders why the playwright did not use "Herbert Finch," which has the same rhythm as Elon Musk and assonates with Herschel.

    BTW, neither is the name Herschel an exclusively Jewish given name, as lamentably evidenced by the recent rise of former American Football star Herschel Walker, who is African-American, to political prominence as a supporter (and endorsee) of Donald Trump. I believe that it was a general Anglo-American given name even before the great immigration of Ashkenazic Jews in the early 20th century.

  • 16 November 2021 at 11:11pm
    Harriet says:
    As a Jew, it was obliquely conveyed to me in my youth that anti-semites were in a sense, jealous of jewish success, and needed some rationale to explain their failures by displaying contempt for us. Jesus saves, but Moses invests.

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